ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – New Mexico and its Democratic governor are being sued over alleged failures to meet constitutional provisions for protecting against oil and gas pollution, a challenge that comes as the nation's No. 2 oil-producing state rides a wave of record revenue from drilling in one of the most prolific collection of oil fields in the world.
A coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday in state district court, marking the first time the state constitution’s pollution-control clause has been the basis of such a legal claim. The 1971 amendment mandates that New Mexico prevent the despoilment of air, water and other natural resources.
The challenge comes as New Mexico rides a wave of record revenue from development in the Permian Basin, currently one of the world’s most productive oil-producing regions. Oil-related revenue collections have surged passed five-year averages to fund a considerable amount of the state's budget, including education and social programs.
Meanwhile, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration is policing the industry with regulations that target methane and other emissions. The goal is capturing 98% of all natural gas waste by the end of 2026, and drilling permits could be denied if operators fail to meet targets.
But the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups say these efforts are not enough and that the state is failing to enforce existing pollution-control measures.
They want oil and gas permitting to be suspended until the state implements "a statutory, regulatory and enforcement scheme that ensures the protection of New Mexico's beautiful and healthful environment,” the lawsuit reads.
Lujan Grisham's office said Wednesday that her administration was proud of its record on the environment.
"Frankly, this is a misguided lawsuit that will only serve to distract the state from conducting additional work on environment and climate solutions and from enforcing the nationally leading regulations this administration fought hard to get on the books,” said Caroline Sweeney, the governor's spokesperson.
The plaintiffs include the groups Indigenous Lifeways, Pueblo Action Alliance, Youth United for Climate Crisis Action and WildEarth Guardians.
The Pueblo Action Alliance is among the Native American groups that have been pushing for the U.S. Interior Department to stop drilling across a wide swath of land beyond the borders of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico. Energy industry organizations have argued that the group is not in good standing with the Secretary of State's Office.
Efforts to stop oil and gas development in the Chaco area and in southeastern New Mexico have mostly been fought in federal court, with U.S. land management policies being the focus. Recent claims have centered on the Bureau of Land Management and whether the agency has been taking a cumulative look at the potential effects of permitting more wells.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday details the experiences of Navajo families in northwestern New Mexico, reciting many of the complaints that have been leveled previously in the fight over development outside of Chaco.
Concerns about the preservation of lands considered culturally significant by some Navajos and more distant pueblo communities are outlined in the lawsuit.
The groups and individual plaintiffs claim that the gathering of medicinal and ceremonial herbs is at risk from ground disturbance by developers and subsequent erosion. They also say the ability to enjoy their ancestral homelands is being compromised.
In southeastern New Mexico, plaintiffs point to truck traffic and poor air quality from the emissions of trucks, generators, compressors and other equipment running continuously in the oil fields.
New Mexico's pollution-control clause was adopted after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1971, the same year state lawmakers adopted other environmental protection measures. At the time, the modern environmental movement was taking shape nationally.
While New Mexico's clause has been on the books for nearly 50 years, lawyers for the plaintiffs say it has never been tested.
Gail Evans, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity and lead counsel on the case, called it a fundamental human right to have clean air, land and water.
“If concern for our environment and public health won’t push New Mexico’s leaders to control the reckless oil and gas industry, we hope legal action will,” she said.